Teaching (for) dispositions?
Education has always been complicit in the shaping
and promoting of dispositions.
Teachers do teach (for) dispositions as they consciously and
unconsciously respond to their students in the classroom.
In their actions, teachers continuously informally assess
students’ bodies, actions, comportment, expressed ideologies, and
rhetoric. Under pervasive
pressures for measurement and accountability, it is understandable that
now even dispositions might be added to the mix of measurable entities
for evaluation or certification.
Moreover, in a context of diminishing state responsibility for
social welfare, greater demands are placed on education—to
make a difference—for example, to intervene in social injustices
such as “racism.” In this context
it may seem appropriate to demand that new teachers display the “correct
set” of dispositions and sensitivities, as the call for papers suggests,
“to issues of social justice and
white privilege in this society.”
Nevertheless, this paper argues conventionally that, despite the
inseparability of dispositions from educational interactions and
education’s necessary role in the learning and unlearning of prejudice,
teachers ought to intentionally avoid any
formal assessment of, or required pledges to, particular
I support the general aims of a “social justice”
orientation in education, but I argue that a direct “dispositional”
approach may be politically and pedagogically unproductive.
Politically, assessing “dispositions” as criteria for
certification, or for inclusion in the “economy of grades,” by intention
or by lack of vigilance, leads to a greater vulnerability to allegations
of “political indoctrination.”
Pedagogically, in the context of teacher education classrooms, a
“dispositions” approach may prove impotent or counter-productive to
fostering the desired aims underlying a “social justice” approach.
Further, I suggest that the controversy—“professional ethic or
political indoctrination”—is more a battle over what counts as knowledge
rather than a battle over whether to mandate dispositions.
I argue, therefore, that educators would be best to intentionally
center their course content and formal evaluation on knowledge and
competencies over dispositions.
While the term “social justice” may now have
shifting, and still yet to be determined, meanings and uses in the
contemporary moment, “white privilege” as a construct employed in
anti-racist discourses definitely has links to the oppositional or
critical pedagogy movements expressing themselves in North America from
the early 1970s. Critical
pedagogy was generally envisioned as a way to intervene in schooling’s
role in the (re)production of social inequalities.
Past conceptualizations and debates of critical pedagogy have
well rehearsed a number of complexities, difficulties and failings of
taking or not taking an explicitly “political” or “oppositional”
pedagogical approach. These
debates still have much to inform a large number of the emerging set of
communities now advocating for a “social justice” approach because some
versions of “social justice” education are entering similar conceptual
terrain. I consider one
fundamental axis of debate on “oppositional pedagogy” presented in the
mid-1990s as a way of illuminating one key challenge to taking a “social
justice” approach to education.
This paper advocates for a critical “knowledge
approach” as a way forward for engaging learners in teacher education
programs oriented by a concern for and commitment to social justice,
with a recognition that “social justice” (in education) has critical and
corporate framings. This
“knowledge approach” is not a
return (to the authority of the Canon or aligned with a “back to the
basics” approach), but an opening up to new demands placed on knowledge
and pedagogy in a transformed and transforming world.
What is important in this post-foundational, transdisciplinary,
and post-ideological moment situating
teacher education is not a turn away from knowledge towards
“dispositions,” but a hanging onto a “battered” and “humbled” knowledge
informed by its past failings, limits, and necessarily imperfect future.
Despite the desires for education to “make a difference” in this
era of empowerment, I suggest that education, at its best, remains a
“weak” force for social change.
While accreditation bodies and schools (as
employers) may well have reason to “assess candidates for proper
dispositions” (call for papers), I think it unwise for schools of
education to become involved in the formal evaluation of dispositions.
I am surprised to hear in the call for papers the claim that some
schools of education are actually doing so.
Politically, as I have stated, a “dispositional” approach leaves
schools wide open to attacks of “political indoctrination”;
pedagogically, it is unsound for a number of reasons; and
philosophically, it essentializes “dispositions” and ethical
responsiveness and instrumentalizes teacher education to favour
processes of selection or filtering over learning.
One underlying source of contention in the debate
of “teaching for dispositions” is the divergent meanings of the term
“dispositions.” How static
are dispositions? Are they
“real” or static (enough) to predict future actions? Or, do dispositions
emerge differentially, primarily as an effect of performances enacted by
individuals in particular contexts?
Even where we accept that one’s dispositions are fixed enough
across time, the problem of how to recognize and measure dispositions in
one context for future applications in another is deeply challenging.
Despite the significance of dispositions, they remain intangible.
We can infer them only from students’ performances in the
classroom or simplistically accept at face value what students (are
willing to) explicitly state.
In the evaluative context of schooling, where students generally
comply with the teacher’s demands on assessment, measuring or evaluating
for the “correct” set of student dispositions seems facile or
Consider the articulation of the “dispositions”
side of the argument as stated in the call for papers:
Conversely, educators of teachers argue that adherence to a professional
code of ethics is expected of teachers as with all professionals.
Furthermore, they argue that they have a responsibility to both their
graduates and to the public to assure that prospective teachers will act
in an ethical way in the classroom and are sensitive to issues of social
justice and white privilege in this society.
In the context of the teacher education classroom,
there are two problematic elements presented in this passage.
The first is the implied correspondence between professional code
of ethics of teachers in schools and the education of teacher candidates
studying in classrooms as students.
In teacher education classrooms, teacher candidates may engage in
discussing, rejecting, accepting, repressing, and/or working through
such controversial and important problems as racism and homophobia.
As students they should not be expected to enact the same kinds of
reserved, multiply responsive and rational behaviors expected of
professional teachers. Their
positionalities and practices as students are different than those as
teachers with institutional authority.
Ethical relations in the teacher education classroom are
different than those found in K-12 schools.
Of course there exist in actuality a number of dispositions
required for basic participation as a student in the teacher education
classroom. Basic modicums of
respect are required, but these are below the proposed theme of a set of
explicit “dispositions” corresponding to concerns and practices of
The second problematic assumption is that programs
can “assure that prospective
teachers will act in an ethical way in the classroom.”
Ethical actions are highly contextual and difficult to prepare
for in any determined way.
Exacting mandates that demand total adherence to particular policy
statements, such as
Schools of education should be more than training
centers organized to select and prepare teacher candidates to fit into
the existing system as efficiently as possible. Promoting and supporting
teacher candidates to adopt “social justice” approaches requires more
than requiring them to adhere to a set of codified professional
standards or to learn new jargon that can effectively tokenize equity.
Because teacher education ought to work to expand the horizons of
students’ thinking and ethical sensibilities, it seems more useful to
focus on students’ intellectual and moral growth (learning) inside and
outside the classroom over adherence to professional standards created
in and for a different context (teaching in K-12 schools).
The classroom context
Pedagogically, there are a number of potential
quagmires in adopting a more direct dispositional approach.
First, as with any teacher mandate in a compulsory or
quasi-compulsory course, there is the likelihood that students will
comply and “perform” the desired dispositions to get a good grade or the
teacher’s affection. Of
course, this compliance has its advantages, such as potentially reducing
prejudiced comments in class; however, prejudice may “go underground”
rather than be exposed to differing viewpoints and possible alterations.
In his essay, “Teaching Against Racism in the Radical College
Composition Classroom,” Nowlan (1995) considers the dangers of taking a
direct dispositions approach in response to a student’s distress over
his pedagogical approach.
The student is confused and disturbed that Nowlan has allowed and even
drawn out “racist” statements and their rationalizations by students in
his classroom. Nowlan
defends his pedagogy by explaining that the alternative, a more direct
or authoritative dispositional approach that shuts down racist
commentary, risks avoiding and evading racism rather than confronting
and contesting it (p. 250).
For Nowlan, a dispositional approach does not require White people to
“own up to” their racism, which means that they can
both pay lip service to
anti-racist sentiments and reap the economic benefits that structural
racism affords them. As
Nowlan says, “[r]acism will not be ended by pretending that we are all
already opposed to it…” (p.250).
With Nowlan, I suspect that a dispositional approach would often
lead to this kind of evasion and pretending in the teacher education
A related effect of a “dispositions” approach,
where readily accepted by students, is the downplaying of knowledge to
sentiments. This outcome
could well foster an undesired lack of responsibility to work at
lessening one’s ignorance.
In my own attempts to include reflective journal writing into students’
overall grade, I have wondered if students’ were effectively getting
(higher) grades for displaying the “teacher-desired” sentiments.
I began to realize that it was actually easier for the “White”
students to speak of how the course had altered their perceptions of
race and of their “unearned privilege,” than to demonstrate that they
had engaged seriously in the course readings on structural racism.
Similarly while it seems pedagogically helpful to use a text like
Peggy McIntosh’s (1988), White
Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which illustrates with
very concrete examples the likely benefits that being (or passing for)
White affords each individual, this concrete accounting of privilege
produces in many students a checklist mentality and sustains a kind of
“personalized” oppression-scale. The scale tends to divert attention
away from studying the structural dimensions of racism towards focusing
on examples and counter-examples of “privilege” and personal stories.
If we are considering the future work of teachers in the
contradictory and challenging space of school teaching, developing
students’ robust (if necessarily incomplete) understandings of racism
and its individual and collective effects that must be articulated and
defended seems a much more desirable aim than requiring their discursive
commitments to “anti-racism” in the relatively “low-stakes” space of a
teacher education classroom. Without a depth of (historical and social)
understanding of the challenges ahead, critical dispositions can easily
become re-adjusted and dampened in the “real-world” of schools.
In this light, the work of “social justice”
education might be considered as deeply challenging, if not impossible,
work. First, we have yet to
understand the limits and possibilities of “social justice,”
post-communism, with no teleological alternative to global capitalism.
In such a world, preparing students to be successful in school
towards securing a good income can be in considerable tension with the
aim of developing citizens concerned with social justice.
Further, schools themselves are hierarchically organized and are
reflective of larger inequitable social structures and processes.
Acting in an ethically responsible way with others means much
more that adhering to a state’s “professional standards” for teachers.
Again, a critical approach that is not naïve but exposes students
to the immensity and complexity of the challenge and the likely barriers
to adopting a “social justice” approach in the institution of schooling
offers greater possibility in supporting a
sustainable approach to an
ethically aware practice.
Casting teacher candidates as “change agents” as they prepare to move
into schools as beginning teachers, often with the least political power
among staff, seems questionable—especially where bolstered by
“dispositions” over understanding of differently positioned others or of
knowledge of the historical conditions producing inequities.
To even take this “dispositions” debate seriously
requires a certain suspension of judgment because
allegations of ideological or
political “indoctrination” are politically motivated and largely
unfounded. It is critical to recognize that organized groups of adults,
on the political right (continue to) carry out projects for political
and ideological influence even as they claim that their intentions are
to support academic freedoms against the “takeover” of university
liberal arts programs by the radical left (Ivie, 2005) .
At one level it seems that the debate on dispositions at present
is more an outcome of allegations rather than of actual practices; I
leave this possibility or response for other contributors.
This paper largely
focuses on the internal
dimensions of debate by educators who value (differentially, perhaps)
the necessity and possibility of education to work towards the making of
a more just world. My focus
in no way is to diminish the important work of supporting intellectual
freedom by (publicly) illuminating the contradictions and ideological
intentions of campaigns to restrict democratically inspired practices in
the university (Ivie, 2005).
Thus, without examining the specifics of particular cases where political indoctrination or filtering is alleged, I remain skeptical that teacher educators are filtering out students based on the assessment of students’ beliefs or pledges, and that policies would dictate such an approach. In my own pre-service Education department, I have noted a spectrum of political and ideological viewpoints of teacher candidates. Extremely few candidates are unsuccessful in being promoted. If any filtering of this sort is happening, I suspect that it occurs in the admissions selection process of particular teacher certification programs, for example, via applicants’ “personal statements,” rather than during the program itself. Further, in spite of attempts to filter for students oriented to a “social justice” approach in this program, generally many of these students still struggle with “white privilege” and other constructs of an anti-racist discourse. Rather, based on the experiences of myself and colleagues, I suspect that most complaints against teacher educators stem from instances where individual students react to classroom spaces where their voices and viewpoints have been minimized by teachers who challenge dominant ideologies such as meritocracy that might unsettle these students understandings of their selves, their entitlements or their modes of participation in class.
Students may react to the altered configurations of
how to perform “smartness,” in class assignments and discussions.
Under a different knowledge/discourse regime, students’
understandings of their own capabilities (in relation to classmates) to
contribute productively can come under question.
Likely most at stake for students’ engaging with unfamiliar
knowledge are their self-concepts and egos, much more than the granting
of certificates or the mandating of pledges to a social justice
approach. And perhaps
teachers’ own egos enter into the fray as they encounter students’
resistance to their pedagogy, which may lead teachers to think that
mandating students to pledge allegiance to their “social justice”
agendas is appropriate.
Finally, where the knowledge itself is under contestation, students may
attempt to reframe critically-informed knowledge as “opinions” or
“viewpoints” in contrast to the imagined objectivity of traditional
disciplinary knowledge and its explicit aim of disinterested study.
Indeed, this tendency is magnified in classes where teachers are
their politics and positionalities, and in classes where students
misread a teacher’s social constructivist approach as implying that all
knowledge claims are relativized to the level of “anyone’s opinion.”
Theoretical discourses that would support a social justice
approach, however, are as knowledge based as more traditional academic
Taking a “dispositional” approach opens up
educators to attacks that their courses are value-laden and not informed
by “real” disciplinary knowledge.
Some progressive educational initiatives, such as international
education, have long come under attack from conservatives as being
ideological and lacking in rigour.
For example, on the World Studies initiative in
As with international education, “social justice”
pedagogies are often more explicitly oriented to shaping values and are
predicated on hopes that education can lead from awareness to action.
Nevertheless they can be founded upon robust theoretical
educators would contest Scruton, arguing that the opposite conjecture,
that the North is responsible for civilizing and bringing light to
“others” as a founding truth in the traditional Western episteme, is an
even more mendacious assumption, and, further, the historically dominant
assumption. Yet it requires
significant study to be able to counter dominant assumptions over what
counts as knowledge. In
their future practices, a dispositional approach may offer teacher
candidates little once they have to defend their “dispositions” to
If a case can be made for a dispositions approach,
it is best supported by a demand to intervene against past (and present)
imbalances. Where social
justice approaches are enacted as oppositional discourses and
correctives to past canonical traditions of bias or “misteachings,”
there is pressure for teachers to be forceful in challenging students’
common sense understandings.
This pressure is further magnified by the limits of the classroom where
students may not acquire enough knowledge to weigh in on canonical “misteachings”
of the past. Against this
backdrop, a direct mandate of a corrective set of “dispositions,”
mapping onto the professional and ethical standards of teaching in
schools, seems justified.
Additionally, where these “misteachings,” which discriminate against
various minorities, begin to play out negatively in the classroom
dynamic affording some students “voice” at the expense of others, a more
authoritarian “safe” space might be appropriate to support students’
(possibilities for) engagement with an anti-oppressive or
For some educators, pressing for dispositions aligned to social
justice as a means of countering students’ learned biases is no doubt
may find rationales for a number of distinct approaches to an education
for “social justice,” I think that evaluating dispositions ultimately
cannot defend itself politically against an increasing Rightist movement
that has captured common sense ideas around accountability and the
inherent right to be free to form one’s own opinion as an “autonomous”
individual (consumer). Nor
can a dispositions approach in public systems of pluralistic societies
ultimately defend itself against the proliferating demands of diverse
groups in an age where there is diminishing trust in the traditional
authorities and master narratives (Lyotard, 1984).
A dispositional approach only fuels the latest in a series of
attempts to discredit critical disciplinary approaches.
There is much noise around viewpoints, opinions, and “bringing
politics into the classroom.”
Teacher educators may intentionally and unintentionally reinforce
attention to this noise by making off-the-cuff comments about a
political leader or by being too “loose” with their grading.
The core of the tension here, however, hinges on what counts for
Critical then is to frame this debate around social
justice on knowledge rather than on dispositions.
Under contestation is the selection of readings and the
theoretical constructs employed in the teacher’s discourse to interpret
and analyse the readings, the “classroom,” and how each links to the
wider world. This point is
necessarily obfuscated by Horrowitz (2006) in his introduction to his
latest book, The Professors: 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America:
This book is not intended as a text about leftwing
bias in the university and does not propose that a leftwing perspective
on academic faculties is a problem in itself. Every individual, whether
conservative or liberal, has a perspective and therefore a bias.
Professors have every right to
interpret the subjects they teach according to their individual points
of view. That is the essence of academic freedom. But they also have
professional obligations as teachers, whose purpose is the instruction
and education of students, not to impose their biases on their students
as though they were scientific facts. The professorial task is to teach
students how to think not to tell them what to think. In short, it is
the responsibility of professors to be professional—and therefore
“academic”—in their classrooms.
This includes the duty not to present their opinions and prejudices as
fact, and not to require students to agree with them on matters which
are controversial (p. 19, my emphasis).
At first glance, Horrowitz presents a reasoned
approach. He does not
suggest that perspective or bias can be avoided, and thus “leftwing bias
in the university” is not a problem in itself.
The problem for Horrowitz arises when these “leftwing” professors
present their biases and viewpoints as scientific facts.
The move that Horrowitz makes here is to admit that any “subject”
can be interpreted from multiple viewpoints, but that the academic
subject itself, as with traditional subject matter, can be and ought to
be “objective.” Implied in
Horrowitz’s statement is the assumption that traditional canonical
knowledge is not based on any opinion or prejudice nor mired in any
controversies. Rather it is
only under more recent theoretical perspectives, cast as controversial,
where some professors have gone awry.
Specifically, where the content of the academic subject unsettles
dominant (common sense) interpretations taken for granted by individuals
as Horrowitz —whether on “objectivity” of knowledge and “disinterested
study,” or on how knowledge is implicated in various regimes of control
and discipline—Horrowitz implies that one moves from the objectivity of
“real” academic knowledge and into the realm of opinions, prejudice, and
somewhat vitriolic critique of academics as using “biased” oppositional
pedagogies, has proven to be powerful amongst educational stakeholders.
A dispositional approach is sure to fuel this line of rhetoric
and offers little intellectual resources to confront Horrowitz’s
Oppositional discourses have traditionally not
hinged on “dispositions” but have very much been centered on knowledge
and the politics of knowledge.
Past (internal) debates and practices of critical pedagogy can
offer insights to “social justice” education that also now find
themselves attempting to “teach against the grain,” to use Roger Simon’s
(1992) metaphor. The next
section returns to one principle axis of debate to reconstitute the
proposed tension that centers on dispositions, to one centered on
versus Liberal Pedagogy
An explicit focus on dispositions is not necessary,
nor largely the precedent, for radical educators to receive allegations
of “political indoctrination.”
These charges have been directed against radical programs for the
selection, and nature, of the knowledge to be studied.
Typically, as with Horrowitz, those who oppose radical approaches
hold the implicit assumption that traditional disciplinary approaches
present objective and politically neutral knowledge from which radical
approaches depart. There are
two typical reactions to alternative pedagogical approaches that center
on content. One common
objection is that concepts or issues being studied by students are
outside the prescribed content of the course.
So for example, in the case of a teacher education course taking
an anti-racist approach, students make comments like:
“All we do is talk about “racism”; when are we going to learn how
to teach students how to read?”
In this scenario, “racism” might be a potentially important or
worthy topic, but focusing on “racism” is perceived by some students as
taking away from the “real” content of the course.
The second and more complex difficulty of an
oppositional pedagogy concerns content configured as
Counter-hegemonic logics challenge the students’ commonly held
assumptions about the world and about themselves.
Their explications represent a serious challenge to the
oppositional educator, in part because these logics risk casting the
student as an object of external forces.
In challenging taken-for-granted assumptions of the individual as
an autonomous, rational subject, the opinions and desires of students
are viewed as constructed by socio-cultural contexts.
In troubling common-sense understandings of the human subject,
the “self” becomes under question and is implicated in how the student
engages in the course content.
Thus, the use of constructs like “white privilege,” may not only
necessitate the use of unfamiliar discourse, but animate “their” own
suppositions with some students in the classroom.
In this case where students resist or contest the idea of “white
privilege,” such a response can be interpreted as illustrating the
axiomatic assumptions of the construct—that there is an invisibility to
privilege and a “learned ignorance” by those with privilege.
When key concepts of the course content can be read
in students’ learning practices and identities, there can be productive
and unproductive pedagogical outcomes.
On the one hand, student resistances can be productively employed
in teaching the construct, for example, as in the case of teaching about
“white privilege.” On the
other hand, students may react to the tautology in play, where any form
of questioning by the student can be categorized as “resistance” and an
illustration of the invisibility of structural racism.
This tautology is bound to produce inaccurate interpretations of
student responses. As well,
where “white privilege” operates as a tautology, students are likely to
contest these theories.
A thought-provoking edited collection, Left
margins: Cultural studies and composition pedagogy (Fitts & France,
1995), articulates and extends dimensions of oppositional pedagogy
discussed thus far.
Particularly, a debate between a liberal pedagogical approach espoused
by Gerald Graff and a radical one espoused by Adam Katz illuminates how
the present debate can be centered on a contestation over knowledge
embedded in schooling. Many
of the contributors to the collection, including Katz (1995a), provide
explanations of the oppositional pedagogy they employ in the
On the one hand, the oppositional teacher declares an
aggressive political agenda that supposedly goes far beyond mere liberal
pluralism and. . .its ideologically suspect defense of “open debate” and
a “free market place of ideas.”
On the other hand, in order to avoid the authoritarianism
entailed by enforcing any such agenda without open debate, the
oppositional teacher inevitably has to reinstate the very pluralism that
has supposedly been repudiated.
It seems the only way oppositional pedagogy can avoid being
authoritarian is by ceasing to be oppositional.
“double bind” for Graff is that to be oppositional and intervene
forcefully against the ideologically charged field constructing the
bounds of discourse operating in the classroom the teacher must be
authoritarian. But being
authoritarian is undesirable to the aim of supporting student learning.
Graff later suggests that, in spite of what the oppositional
pedagogue may avow, he or she typically ends up choosing pluralism to
avoid totalitarianism. Graff
instead advocates for a “liberal pluralist” pedagogy where different
political viewpoints are respectfully accounted.
He suggests pragmatically that “resistant” students are more
likely to give a sympathetic hearing to oppositional ideas if these
ideas are presented, not as a privileged standpoint, but as one option
among several. Even if,
writes Graff (citing Bennett):
“the conditions of free and equal competition of ideas have already been
nullified by the prior, enormous distortion in favor one side,” teachers
have no choice but to act as if these conditions existed, or at least as
if it is possible to create them in our classrooms if not everywhere
else (p. 280-281).
suggests that even if open debate is impossible in the larger world, one
has to at least attempt it in the classroom.
Graff thus can only envision productive outcomes from schooling
through relatively open and free debate.
(1995b) responds to this so-called double-bind by acknowledging that
radical pedagogy, as with all pedagogy, is impositional.
[O]f course oppositional pedagogy represents an “imposition” upon
students, since “culture” is nothing other than the totality of such
impositions by unequally situated economic, political, and ideological
agents: so, while the dominant pedagogy imposes upon students the
understanding that they are seekers after universal value or social
reconciliation, oppositional pedagogy imposes upon them the
understanding that their discourses and practices are sties of
irreconcilable social contestation.
emphasizes that all pedagogy makes an imposition on students.
And in response to Graff’s concern that oppositional pedagogy
must ultimately legitimate students’ opinions and voices to avoid
totalitarian settings, Katz counters:
Since Graff must see the classroom as a purely ahistorical idealist
space (“logical” and not material), he cannot understand that the
“legitimacy” of students’ “opinions” as a historical fact, supported by
the dominant culture, can be “recognized” by the oppositional classroom,
precisely as a way of questioning the production of that “legitimacy”
itself. (p. 308)
approach, as he argues it, is not to condemn students’ opinions, “but to
enable them to see their ‘opinions’ as historical and social products
(and not as their own private property), which in turn can be critiqued
and transformed” (p. 214).
Katz’s curricular content made explicit to students is to teach
“opinions” as historically and socially constructed, Graff’s approach
(in parallel to Horrowitz) implicitly accepts axioms of
liberalism of the autonomous rational self and the idealist educational
site as below contestation.
Thus, while accepting and employing the dominant liberal axioms, Graff
wants to bring Katz’s axioms of subject-formation and social relations
to the domain of “open debate” as one theory to be presented amongst
others for student examination.
On this point, I agree with Katz, who succinctly summarizes the
key deficiency of Graff’s position; Katz writes:
. . . Graff] condemns oppositional pedagogy for doing what any classroom
does: include some knowledge-positions and exclude others, and use
standards for determining the value of students’ contributions to the
class. In other words, any
classroom evaluates the “legitimacy” of students’ knowledge-positions:
the difference in the oppositional classroom is that it openly posits
and explains its criteria. . .
The oppositional classroom is required to more explicitly “posit and
explain its criteria” because oppositional pedagogy attempts to
de-stabilize students’ knowledge-positions—their socially-constructed,
With liberal approaches, on the other hand, students already largely
accept the underlying ideologies, and thus, there is less imposition on
students and little need for teachers to be explicit on the liberal
assumptions at play. A
concept like “white privilege” then runs up against these common-sense
understandings many students have of themselves, and their knowledge
positions become unsettled.
Thus the oppositional approach does require a stronger intervention and
a greater imposition on the student, as Graff implies.
Under an oppositional approach, it is reasonable that students
will contest the knowledge being presented as opposed to knowledge that
is less implicated to their taken-for-granted assumptions about the
world and about themselves.
Nevertheless such contestation ought not to transport such theories into
the realm of controversy and opinion any more than other theories
implicitly or explicitly taught in the educational curriculum.
I think that Katz’s argument is theoretically more robust, yet Graff’s
liberal approach does seem to connect better to the complexity of the
classroom scene. There
remain problems and difficulties with oppositional pedagogy, not because
it is theoretically inconsistent, as Graff argues, but because it may
fail to take account of the ethical relations
between subjects in the classroom, which cannot be predetermined nor
fully captured by a radical rationalist logic.
Katz’s approach may win the curricular argument but in practice
lose the singularity of the student’s relation to and opportunity for
learning. Secondly, the
significant knowledge needed to support an oppositional pedagogy is not
easily mastered by teachers who take on its premises.
Sometimes this means that the teacher is not able to productively
respond to students’ questions or contestations.
Such a case may lead to the status quo where the teacher drops
the oppositional approach and offers multiple ideas for debate, as Graff
remarks. It can also lead,
however, to a teacher defensively holding onto an oppositional approach
but relying on the authority of an identity, or cause (like “social
justice”) for managing the classroom discourse.
Where an oppositional approach operates as a “standpoint” theory,
then it does move towards indoctrination.
An oppositional pedagogy can even fall into the trap of
traditional canonical theories privileging its underlying politics and
rightness of world-view over a disciplined and rigorous examination of
how knowledge is constructed, produced and disseminated.
A basic assumption of oppositional or critical pedagogy, that the
teacher can be a “transformative intellectual,” (Giroux, 1988) is indeed
problematic. All educators,
including Giroux and Katz, are subject to the web of socio-cultural
forces constructing human subject-positions.
The perspectives of critical pedagogues are thereby limited and
open to contestation. Even
if Katz is correct to point out that students’ opinions and viewpoints
are distorted by ideology, the classroom encounter necessitates a degree
of humility both on the limits of theory and on the limits of
learning—how individuals will agree or not agree to learn or not learn
with one another.
Psychoanalytic perspectives in education (Felman, 1982; Britzman, 1998),
for instance, discuss resistances to, and crises in, learning that
emphasize the inner (psychical) forces of subject formation over
external ones. A major
challenge for critical pedagogy is that the student’s relationship to
knowledge is neither wholly rational nor transparent.
With all learning, students are attempting to concurrently
comprehend the teacher’s meanings and respond to (evaluate) these
This debate that I have analyzed between Katz and Graff remains relevant
to present debates around the teaching for dispositions in teacher
education. Who is (more)
right in this debate is not my concern; rather, the debate remains a
resource for critical and progressive educators upon which to draw to
illuminate and alter their practices.
Fundamentally, the radical and liberal approaches remain
conceptually incommensurable, yet they can be productively employed in
one’s practice at different moments with different purposes.
Oppositional approaches challenge students’ common-sense
understandings and perceptions of self and others.
These challenges create irresolvable tensions exacerbated in
present-day contexts where students’ views and self-concepts are to be
explicitly valued and utilized to foster their learning.
Where and how to employ oppositional pedagogy is the art of
critical teaching; in addition to understanding the justification and
aims of radical pedagogy propounded by theorists like Katz, critical
teaching requires considerable self-reflexivity and on-going learning
through the practice of teaching.
Ideally, one’s approach to teaching neither assumes the existence
of a pluralist idealist space to enact classroom teaching in the liberal
tradition, nor enacts an oppositional pedagogy as dogmatic,
predetermined, and beyond contestation.
With the debate of Graff and Katz in mind, I return to the aim of
an education for social justice that is not centered on a “dispositions”
approach but informed by the challenges of oppositional pedagogy.
Education for Social Justice
It is useful to separate out two versions of
“social justice” circulating in educational discourses in the present
historical conjuncture. One
is the corporatized version of “social justice” that has become common
parlance in the discursive landscape of corporations, banks,
(corporatizing) universities, and inter-governmental institutions who
claim to be “making a difference”—from the World Bank’s “poverty
eradication” to the
more recent consumer choice of buying “Red” for AIDS
The more (neo)liberal forms of “social justice”
education then tend to focus on individual “empowerment” for social
mobility and advancement: learning as a way out of the “inner city,” or
learning to be charitable to others as/once one’s career is established.
Further, it advocates for models of
inclusive education, albeit
with less scrutiny to the politics of schooling (and society) and more
focus on how individual teachers and administrators, with “awareness”
and anti-prejudiced sensibilities, can improve schools to help
“disadvantaged students” learn.
The religious and
conservative factions may be “up in arms” over inclusive educational
reforms that counter their religious and traditional values (for
example, including representations of gay/lesbian families in the
curriculum). For the
mainstream corporate world, however, “social justice” seems to pose
little threat to established orders.
form of social justice in education is one that has affinities to the
oppositional discourses of earlier decades.
Insights garnered from earlier debates, such as the debate of
Katz and Graff, can inform oppositional pedagogies such as anti-racist
education under present contexts of schooling.
Educators employing oppositional approaches need to be aware of,
and anticipate, the likely reactions by students as their common sense
notions come under question.
For example, constructs like “white privilege” potentially
unsettle students who have a traditional conception of education as
politically neutral or have a vested, but under-acknowledged, interest
in an inequitably structured society/world. However, teachers must also
be open and responsive to students in the unfolding present of the
responsiveness requires one to withhold judgment and to understand that
the manifest resistances students display can have multiple, divergent
so as to not pigeon-hole students based on past instances.
Teachers do have the responsibility to challenge students’
prejudiced statements, and to trouble uncritical notions of agency and
“doing good,” but this is not without the humility that comes with one’s
own partial understandings, biases, and limitations.
As teacher educators, we ourselves are still in the process of
attempting to understand the limits and possibilities of social justice
in today’s world and how education might play a role.
social justice approach does not have to look down upon models of
charity or of altruistic desires; these ought to be fostered and valued.
Nonetheless they can point out the limits and potential
pretensions of these acts and how they may indirectly or directly
“Social justice” educators want teachers who care
but we also want teachers who
understand where certain kinds of benevolence, predicated on
patriarchal, heterosexist, or racist visions, or made possible by
economic exploitation, do violence to others.
In essence I have been arguing that there are
shortcuts towards realizing
the aims of a social justice approach to education.
It is logical that dispositions will attempt to be the latest
measurable component in an age of measurement, accountability, and
profit-friendly altruism; however, intentionally assessing dispositions
is not the best way forward.
Knowledge has taken a real beating in a post-foundational,
trans-disciplinary, post-ideological age.
I am not suggesting a return to a presumptuous or elevated
knowledge. I am advocating for a reflexive knowledge now educated by the
failures of modernist dreams of “progress,” a knowledge educated on the
limits of knowledge, a knowledge aware of its immanent relations with
power (Foucault & Gordon, 1980), and
yet a knowledge robust enough
to be useful as a resource to support teachers’ ethically responsive
actions as they in turn become responsible for supporting the learning
of their future students in a complex, troubled, dynamic, and
Oppositional knowledge and pedagogy enabled by
contemporary theoretical literatures are not to be cast off as less
rigorous, ideological or as situated in fostering dispositions.
With the lessons learned from decades-long critiques of canonical
knowledge and its production and uses, theoretical perspectives that
utilize constructs as “white privilege” in “social justice” approaches
ought to be seen as a corrective (albeit in some ways incommensurable)
to myopic, functionalist and apolitical-idealized traditions continuing
to have weight in mainstream educational vision and practices.
With a knowledge approach, what ought to be
formally assessed continue to be performances and products of carefully
deliberated assignments. An
anti-racist pedagogy, for example, would not be framed around one’s
personal relationship to racism but on
knowledge of structural
racisms as evidenced in a wide array of historical documents and
Adjacent to appropriate assignments and evaluation methods, a nuanced
responsive approach employing both (liberal) progressive and critical
teaching methods, as dissonant, would be a more fruitful way of
promoting students’ sensitivities to concerns of social justice.
Critical and progressive modalities have common elements, and are
sometimes conflated in “social justice” approaches unproblematically
advocating simultaneously for “open debate,” “minority positions” and
“social change.” However, as
oppositional pedagogues accept, these distinct objectives are often
under considerable tension.
I propose that greater efforts be made to develop pedagogies to
anticipate the kinds of
obstacles and challenges indicative of these tensions as surfacing in
“social justice” approaches.
The “double-bind” that Graff describes continues to
be one major tension for the critical educator to negotiate.
On the one hand, we want to inclusively support and draw out
student voices as human subjects with the desire to participate.
As with Nowlan, we want our students (and ourselves) to “own up”
to their/our prejudices by holding them up to the scrutiny of others.
We want to hear students’ views and opinions on the
(destabilizing) content we offer them, not only because their reactions
might illustrate concretely the constructedness of “opinions” and
knowledge-positions as Katz argues, but because many students are still
in part just trying to make sense of what we are saying—their processes
of comprehension and evaluation are synchronous.
They may well be reacting to something other than what we are
teaching according to their own misreadings.
The process of voicing reactions to various misreadings acts as a
kind of scaffolding for students to begin to approach the teacher’s
desired meanings. On the
other hand, the inclusion of some students’ voices can be at the expense
of others’. Sometimes
students’ (socially constructed) reactions, rather than being
pedagogically useful, can interfere with and subvert the teacher’s and
other learners’ agendas. In
such cases, the teacher may have to intervene more forcefully.
However, for me, unlike Graff, whose “double-bind” will dissolve
once the educator appropriately drops the “oppositional” approach, the
double bind represents an inherent tension that must be managed by the
educator. The teacher has to
be able to read the dynamics of the class and decide whether a safer,
“politically correct” space is the direction to pursue, or whether there
exists more respect and intellectual humility to employ a more
dialogical and open approach.
Anticipating the dimensions of this challenge and
others that are likely to emerge is an important component of the
critical approach. Taking a
social justice approach with little understanding of the implicit
challenges and possible outcomes may lead to undesirable consequences
where students may feel that the course itself lacks an ethos of “social
justice,” or alternatively, that social justice means writing journal
responses that capture “politically correct” sentiments.
Navigating amidst these various dynamically shifting tensions,
for me, is central to the art of critical teaching.
Such teaching is a struggle that can be reflexively informed over
time and by sharing the struggles of practice with other educators.
Sharing each other’s struggles in employing “social
justice” oriented pedagogical approaches as tension-filled rather than
“success stories” may also be helpful.
An approach that focuses on struggles and even failures may be
more productive than collaboratively emphasizing the “rightness” of
social justice aims and approaches (in part to fend off external
criticisms), or sharing “success stories” within heightened
accountability regimes, which offer little insight into the complexities
of the deep challenges inherent to a critical approach.
Further, rather than collectively piggybacking on various
imperatives of anti-racism and
“social justice,” teacher educators may want to more fully engage in
what “social justice” means in the present and how educators committed
to “social justice” can learn from the sharing of tensions and failures
to develop their anticipatory and reflexive pedagogical approaches.
It may be more productive to focus on the pedagogy without
falling into the dynamics of an ideological debate, many times
instigated by the conservative right.
Even Ellsworth’s (1989) well-known critique of “critical
pedagogy” might have been read as an
opening to better understand
and alter blind spots in critical pedagogy, rather than as an attack
against which a defense was deemed necessary.
There is precedent for collaboratively engaging in
tensions of teaching in the fields of teacher research and self-study in
education. However, much of
this work has not fully employed the critical resources that trouble
concepts like “student voice” and learning from “experience” centering
these “teacher learning” discourses.
In this sense, these discourses have generally remained fairly
insular to their core communities and somewhat instrumental
(uncritical). As educators
we would do well to learn, from the tradition of teacher research, the
value of sharing reflections on teaching practices.
At the same time, it is necessary
to continually engage with scholarship that supports critically
examining, and refining or altering, the lenses or constructs we rely
upon for interpreting our teaching practices.
In conclusion, I suggest that to take the aims of
education for social justice seriously as a teacher educator, it is best
to avoid falling into polemical debates on “dispositions” in
To engage and influence, rather than mandate, “dispositions” in the
classroom towards more socially-just practices, I have emphasized the
importance of a “knowledge approach” that “hangs onto” knowledge and
competencies while anticipating the necessary tensions, and potential
obstacles, emerging from a critical (oppositional) approach.
Through future dialogue, I hope to learn how others understand
and respond to challenges of a “social-justice” approach to teacher
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Whitty, G., & Edwards, T. (1998). School Choice
 I mean we are “post” ideology in two ways. First, to call something ideological becomes somewhat meaningless once every kind of representation is ideological. Second, I suggest that we no longer really believe that “knowledge” (alone) can set us free. For example, the argument that if only we could become critically aware of how the Capitalist media distorts our knowing, we would transform social inequity has diminishing credibility. Ideology critique remains useful in an age of spin and overabundant information and images but is only one useful intervention among many necessary others. By “post-foundational” I am referring to the diminishing reliance on the traditional subfields of education such as “psychology of education,” and “sociology of education.” Teacher education programs are increasingly drawing on other more transdisciplinary theoretical discourses, such as cultural studies and “new literacies,” to structure their course offerings for teacher candidates.
 I am quite aware that students do in fact make incredibly prejudiced statements in the classroom. Sometimes these statements are intimidating to other students and to the teacher. How to respond in the moment of teaching is very challenging; however, as I argue, a direct dispositional approach is not the best response.
 The fiction of
the “state” has given way to the fiction of the “market” (Stråth,
2003) as the dominant narrative driving school reform and the
alleviation of (global) poverty.
Present-day school reform trends such as privatization
and choice mechanisms have only heightened the role of education
in gaining individual social advantage (Whitty & Edwards, 1998);
such social advantage then becomes the pre-conditions to “do
good in the world” through charity and service.
A recent allegation and defense at
 Our program in
certainly fit into the growing trend of discursive commitments
to “social justice” in pre-service teacher programs:
“The principles and themes that infuse the Faculty's
programs include equity, diversity, community, collaboration,
interdisciplinarity and social justice (yorku.ca/foe
 Even in the more neutral context of mathematics courses, I have observed how students who have demonstrated competence in a “skills” approach will contest alternative progressive approaches that threaten to rearrange prior “rankings” of competencies.
 These can be verbal statements or statements inscribed on the skin. In other words, a person of colour teaching for anti-racism tends to be read differently (as being ideologically motivated), than a Caucasian who can teach behind the invisibility of Whiteness as a racial category.
 There are a number of versions of this critique. For example, there have been criticisms that the radical teacher does not “walk the talk”—acting unjustly to students in the name of “social justice,” shutting down the voices of some students to create “safe space” for others, etc.
 Here I am thinking of a Lévinasian-informed encounter with an other, where the ethical impulse is not rationalistic and pretermined (Lévinas, 1969). Radical educators may expect certain patterns of student responses (as constructed) and be prepared to unsettle students, but if responding to each student as also a partially agentic subject is important for radical pedagogy, than preconceived notions of how the radical educator will respond to the student cannot be fully pre-determined.
 A related analysis can be found in Ellsworth’s (1989) critique of critical pedagogy.
 For one example, where corporations such as oil companies offer funding to cancer fundraising campaigns, attention is turned toward diagnosis of cancer rather than to environmental contaminants. See King (2006) for an analysis of cause-related corporate philanthropy.
 In my dissertation research on the shifting uses of the “International” of the International Baccalaureate (IB), I illuminate how in the last decade, under increasing competition for academic distinction, the liberal humanist aim of “international understanding” transforms into an expedient for one’s individual advantage.
 For one example, see the account of Spence (2002).
 Resistance to “white privilege,” for example, could alternatively hinge on anxiety with an alternative discourse and should not be simply taken as evidence of the “invisibility” of the “knapsack of privilege” (McIntosh, 1988). Some students may choose to appear anti “anti-racist” rather than less “smart.”
 The defense by Henry Giroux (as represented by Lather, 1992) illustrates how critical oppositional approaches that preach boundary transgressions and border crossings can ironically engage in their own authoritarian policing of (disciplinary) boundaries.